JCOPE vs the PR industry: The ironic battle for your First Amendment rights


Contrary to popular belief, rain on your wedding day isn’t exactly ironic. That’s just bad luck. A free ride when you’ve already paid? Tough luck again.

Irony is when a committee dedicated to promoting integrity and ethics is potentially guilty of violating your First Amendment rights.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics in New York redefined “lobbying” to include public relations efforts, with the goal of promoting transparency and reducing the potential for corruption.

Those are worthy causes to promote, of course. But the New York advisory, ironically enough, only serves to promote confusion and reduce the free-flow of communication.

Here we will take a look at what the differences are between PR and lobbying, why the JCOPE advisory is dangerous and what that means for you as a PR professional.

Government relations vs public relations

Lobbyist are experts in government relations. They are skilled in political processes and often are experts in a specific industry, which puts them a unique position to offer insight and advice to public officials. These public official cannot expect to make informed decisions on laws without outside help, and lobbyists often provide that help by representing particular organizations. The problem is that this relationship often becomes corrupted when public officials use the lobbyists to make money.

PR Doctor Chicago published an article that describes this important difference. “In public relations, the stock and trade of the business is communicating in a way that generates goodwill and mutual benefit, based upon the merits of a given position or viewpoint. Lobbying, in our view, goes beyond the merits and persuasiveness of the arguments alone; lobbying typically introduces a system of “spoils,” or “rewards” for desired outcomes—often in the form of monetary contributions, gifts, favors, perks, etc., that have some material value or net material gain for the recipient.”


While PR uses open communication to sway public opinion, lobbying is often done privately and seeks to implement change while ignoring public opinion. (Illustration by Electronic Frontier Foundation)

PR is now considered lobbying…so what?

Because of the potential for corruption, lobbying is extremely regulated. PR professionals now face similar regulations.

Mark McClennan, the National Public Relations Society of America Chair, said that the advisory is ambiguous and could have very chilling effects on the PR industry. “The ruling is so broad it could have very wide ranging effects. It could impact any public relations agency or company doing business in New York State. Based on how broadly it’s worded, if you were to do anything with the media on any issue that might be seen by the New York legislature, then that could be considered lobbying.”

Unfortunately, the consequences extend beyond simply wasting the time and money of PR professionals. PR professionals, journalists and editors will now shy away from openly communicating with each other, and the free-flow of information will be hindered.

PR professionals will have to raise their prices to account for the increased fees, which will not only reduce their work potential but will also make it difficult for small and medium sized businesses to function.

PR strikes back

A coalition of several PR industries filed a lawsuit against JCOPE, with the hopes of narrowing down the advisory and giving it clarity. At the same time, the PRSA Chair, the Arthur W. Page Society, and the PR Council filed three affidavits to help lawmakers understand the issue.

Here’s where more of that irony stuff comes into play.

These PR groups did an excellent job of raising awareness, as you can see by dozens of articles written about the issue. You would almost expect, however, that these groups that lead the PR industry would do a better job of issuing a call to action. The irony is that the PR industry seems to have issued a relatively weak PR campaign.

Public relations is strategic because it hits multiple fronts, so why not develop a website with updates on the issue? Why not have people submit stories about how their lives are affected by JCOPE? Why not pass around surveys or petitions to allow people to become more involved? Information was disseminated, but it almost seems like there was no call to action.

Perhaps in the months that follow we will see how the lawsuit progresses and know how effective the campaign really was. Until then, I’ll be waiting for that call to action.





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